LOS ANGELES FILM FESTIVAL 2014: Give me a moment to catch my breath as I type up this review for Snowpiercer, because my lord was this movie a relentless experience, filled with more bloodshed and bodies than one train can handle! Nope, “train” isn’t a metaphor – South Korean director Joon-ho Bong’s dystopic action thriller takes place all in one location: a massive locomotive that houses the only people left on Earth after a failed experiment to combat global warming wipes out all but a handful of the human population. The remaining survivors are given two options: board a Wilford Industries train and yield control to society’s privileged one percent or face a world covered in snow and ice, where human life is frozen solid forever after just a few minutes of outdoor exposure. Knowing only one of these two horrible options ensures a shot at survival, the poor have no choice but to accept their new status as the bottom rung of human existence. Filled with visuals that are utilized as intelligently as Kelly Masterson’s wickedly smart script (co-written with director Joon-ho Bong), this heart-pounding science fiction film is also the best of its genre since October’s awe-inspiring Gravity.
For seventeen years, the poor – who are confined to the tail section of the train – have been malnourished, beaten to an inch of their lives and have had their children stolen from them for some unknown purpose. Enough is enough and a revolution is imminent. After a few failed uprisings led by the tailies’ (Lost term, I know, but it applies) leader Gilliam (John Hurt), push comes to shove when another group of children is taken away by the elite, the ruling class onboard the “Snowpiercer” train who are led by chief engineer and designer Wilford (Ed Harris). When two of the children’s parents attempt to stall the kidnapping, they are severely punished by Wilford’s cowardly enforcer Mason (Tilda Swinton), a raving mad woman who barks out orders like she’s orating her high school valedictorian speech. Swinton turns what could be a nauseatingly campy role into one that joyously exudes blissful insanity – Mason’s speeches and denture-inspired intonations provide such a hoot that I challenge you to find a more hilarious character at the movies this year.
Following another unjust display of cruelty by the elite – one man’s arm is forced to remain outside for a full seven minutes until it’s frozen solid – the tail inhabitants agree that the time to strike is now. Too old and physically inept to lead and carry out the insurrection, Gilliam subtly appoints fellow tailie Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) to spearhead the initial assault to retake the train. Curtis, who has a mysterious and troubled past he cannot wait to leave behind in the tail section, acts as the team’s battle tank, hoping to charge through each box car of “Snowpiercer” until there is nobody left standing except Wilford. He does, however, need some help if he wants to get to his final destination. His closest tailie buddies Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Grey (Luke Pasqualino) all have their value, but Curtis requires a team member who can unlock the large blast doors that separate each car from the rest. His search to find a security expert leads him to Namgoong (Kang-ho Song), a Korean tech wiz who will only agree to help the tailies so long as he’s given the flammable drug known as Kronol after every box car victory. Accompanying Namgoong is his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Go), a seventeen-year-old clairvoyant who is instrumental in giving the insurgents the upper hand before entering each train car.
The rest of the film plays out to a chaotic, dizzying beat, where the fighting and action sequences become a kind of poetry in motion. Fans of Gareth Evans’ Raid franchise will no doubt notice structural similarities in Snowpiercer, in which each train car acts as a kind of video game level that must be “won” in order for the characters to progress. No train car is alike, nor is the sequence shot or executed in the same manner as the one prior – each encounter is almost like a brand new mini-adventure, varied and with plenty of design personality to boot. By the time the tailies reach the room inhabited by Alison Pill’s supremely cloying Wilford Industries educator, your heart will be pounding so hard that the slightest reprieve from action will feel like the worst kind of torture. That’s in large part why Snowpiercer’s exposition heavy, overwrought final act is somewhat disappointing – the film is at its strongest when it goes completely nuts and revels in the insanity of the situation, our heroes understandably violent and vicious since the ends have no choice but to justify the means.
The ensemble is pretty stellar, I must say. John Hurt and Ed Harris do a lovely job as elderly men on two sides of the same coin, trying to bend the young-minded to their will at any cost (think: X-Men’s Professor Xavier and Magneto). While this is very much Chris Evan’s film to commandeer, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer make the most of their supporting performances, each offering up sympathetic characters whose innocence and naivety was long ago stripped away and are now ready to unleash a death blow if need be. There was no doubt Spencer would be amazing even in a limited capacity, but it’s Bell who continues to show us exactly why he’s perhaps the most underrated young actor working today. No role is too big or small for Bell – he commits fully and without a second’s hesitation. Chris Evans, while less impressive as an actor than both Spencer and Bell, needs more complicated, meaty roles like Curtis Everett moving forward in his career. He doesn’t land every one of his dramatic beats or emotional cues the way his director probably would’ve liked him to, but he is strengthening his craft and can now officially be separated from his Captain America persona without much effort.
However, it’s Korean actors Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Go who are the true fascinations of Snowpiercer. Their father-daughter chemistry is believable upon introduction, and the pair give the only credible “serious” performances of the film. Every other actor is better when they coat their lines with a bit of cheesy flair, but Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Go remind us why this story is so somber to begin with. But don’t worry, the pair have their comedic timing down to a T, namely when sniffing the Kronol and stumbling around in high elation as if they’re listening to the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction from inside their minds. Speaking of music, Marco Beltrami — a composer whom I’ve long been a fan of — orchestrates this film with classical tastes in mind, the violins and other stringed instruments providing a dark, maddening symphony which rides on the same wave of gleeful insanity as Joon-ho’s stylish sensibilities.
With Snowpiercer, director Joon-ho Bong has sprung yet another depraved and unapologetically fun film on an unsuspecting public. Snowpiercer features a winning combo of sci-fi smarts and exhilarating action that’s frenetic yet reasonably easy to follow. Therefore, it shouldn’t be much of a shock to see that I’m championing a science fiction film that will engage the mind as ferociously as the senses, especially considering the slate this year has been rather nonsensical and think-free. The Weinstein Company’s Radius-TWC division will be giving Snowpiercer a limited release on June 27th. Be on the lookout for a subsequent VOD release at a later, unspecified date. While you enjoy the trailer below, please note that it’s crucial to see this film in as large a theater as possible in order to get the experience its director most intended for his audience. Enjoy!